It didn’t take long for the anti-MLS forces on Social Media to sharpen their knives following the United States failure to qualify for Russia 2018. In fairness, it doesn’t take much for those knives to get sharpened by that bunch, as MLS is seen as an enemy to the game by those with short memories.
This is not to suggest that MLS is perfect, but the idea that the league – a league that is commanding massive expansion fees across the USA and exposing the joys of following club soccer week in and week out to hundreds of thousands of new Americans every day—is the reason the US failed to qualify is, to be diplomatic, simplistic.
To be less diplomatic, it’s absurd.
A few key points:
First, and this is key, IT’S NOT THE JOB OF A PROFESSIONAL LEAGUE TO BUILD A NATIONAL TEAM. It’s the job of a professional team to grow professional soccer culture in its markets (the clubs) and to entertain its customers (its fans). By doing that it can help national teams, but it cannot be its primary focus.
Second, if MLS is the problem how do you wrap your head around idea that MLS players played significant roles for countries that did qualify. Hell, Roman Torres and Alberth Elis scored the goals that sent their country’s to the World Cup. If you’re willing to look beyond the moment, you’ll also see that MLS has helped drive an increase in the American talent pool, which, in turn, has allowed the US to go to seven straight World Cups.
Third, there is no evidence that the structure of the league – i.e. the lack of promotion and relegation – has anything to do with anything. The argument that not having the threat of relegation somehow makes players soft ignores how few players on relegation teams play significant roles on more successful national teams. In fact, what would likely happen is that players would become less likely to commit to international football if they were consistently needing to fight to keep their team up. Fans romanticise the idea that players are going to prioritize playing for the flag, but the reality is fans aren’t paying the player’s mortgages. The clubs they play for are and those clubs are – and should be – the player’s No 1 concern. This is an idea that Canadian readers will be familiar with as it’s something players here have long battled with.
As said above, this is not to say that MLS can’t make some changes – changes that could benefit the league, as well as, indirectly, the national teams.
The one area that the MLS-bashers may have a point on is the lack of competition that currently exists for playing time among the national team players. There is also an argument to be made about MLS coaches not giving young domestic players an opportunity to break through into the first team. The solution to these issues might be counterintuitive and, on the surface, contradicting.
There is no doubt that older, American players are a premium in MLS. Because of international roster restrictions, an American (or Canadian in Canada) that can do a job is incredibly value. That leads to them likely being overvalued in salary and, in turn, more likely to get playing time.
So, get rid of international restrictions altogether. By removing the artificial restraints you will force domestic players to step up their game and earn their spot. That would address the complacency complaint that anti-MLS voices have. As an aside, it would also address Canadians complaints about the domestic status of Canadian players on American teams. The law MLS cites when it refuses to acknowledge Canadians as domestics league-wide only requires that all internationals be treated equally. Eliminating international restrictions accomplishes that.
Such a measure would likely cost a few domestic players their jobs, but the majority of roster spots would remain American (and maybe a more reasonable amount would become Canadian). It’s just easier and a better fit for domestic players to play domestically the world over.
Now, it’s more likely MLS goes the other way and becomes more protectionist, but that would be a mistake.
The issue of getting more chances for younger players is difficult without getting into quotas again. As outlined above, quotas could have a detrimental impact on development, so MLS would need to think long and hard before taking that step.
The solution here could be cap relief. Since the salary cap isn’t going anywhere, why not make any academy produced player cap exempt for the duration of his contract? Yes, that would potentially give an advantage to clubs with big academies, but there comes a point where protecting parity becomes, well, parody. If Salt Lake City can have one of the best academies in MLS, which it does, there is no excuse for any club that doesn’t follow suit. Incentivy them to make it so.
Make no mistake, MLS is largely a strawman in this discussion. But, there are a few small things that could be done that would benefit both the league and the national teams attached to the league.
Edited by Duane Rollins